take it as a compliment.

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  • July 23, 2014

Max Steinberg grew up in the same part of Los Angeles where I did, and he grad­u­ated from my high school, though it was a decade after I was last there. So I never met him. But I’ve read a lot about him this week, after he died while serv­ing in the IDF in Gaza and his story became the par­a­dig­matic nar­ra­tive about Americans who go to Israel to join the army.

And I read with inter­est when one of my favorite writ­ers, Slate’s Allison Benedikt wrote about Steinberg yes­ter­day in a much-Facebooked arti­cle.

birthrightThe piece has come under fire because Benedikt seems to be claim­ing that Birthright killed Max Steinberg. Or at least that’s what the crit­ics are say­ing.

I don’t think that’s what Benedikt was try­ing to say. As I read it, she’s answer­ing a ques­tion that a lot of non-Jews (and non-engaged Jews) might be ask­ing: What made this kid — who never seemed to be all that Jewy before — decide to pick up and join the Israeli army? That’s a legit­i­mate ques­tion. How many American kids ship off to fight for the Dutch army or the Argentinian navy? (Not very many, I would think.)

Benedikt answers the ques­tion by explain­ing that (a) Steinberg’s par­ents credit Birthright, and (b) Birthright’s goal is to get American kids to care about Israel. Her assess­ment seems to be: Look! It worked.

And, “at some point dur­ing their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are con­stantly reminded, every moun­tain and val­ley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s his­tory,” there is “the moment”— the moment when par­tic­i­pants real­ize just how impor­tant Israel is to them, to their fun­da­men­tal iden­tity, and how impor­tant they are to Israel.

According to Steinberg’s par­ents, that is exactly what hap­pened to Max.

Birthright’s defend­ers should take her arti­cle as a com­pli­ment, not an attack.

Benedikt does make one impor­tant crit­i­cal point:

People say Birthright is “just like camp,” and it sure sounds like a very con­densed ver­sion of the Jewish camp I attended as a kid, whose pur­pose was, at the very least, to fos­ter a con­nec­tion to Israel in young Jews—and at best, to get us to move to the coun­try and fight for it. My camp, filled with the chil­dren of lib­eral American Jews, did this by pre­sent­ing a very sim­plis­tic pic­ture of the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Israel and the threat to Jews world­wide, all within the con­text of help­ing to fix the world while hav­ing the time of your life. Birthright does a form of the same.

Um… are peo­ple say­ing she’s off base here? It seems to me that it’s a fair crit­i­cism. Birthright is a ten-day trip, partly because the 6-week sum­mer trips that existed before its incep­tion weren’t attract­ing unen­gaged, dis­con­nected Jews (like, um, Max Steinberg). Since it’s begin­nings, I’ve heard lots of Jewish edu­ca­tors who are Birthright sup­port­ers (and I think I count myself in that group) admit that ten days is just a taste, and that it presents a “sim­plis­tic pic­ture.” (And we usu­ally say that if Birthright does its job, we’ll have lots of chances to add lay­ers of com­plex­ity to that pic­ture as the attendee engages post-trip.)

Is Benedikt’s atti­tude toward Birthright a lit­tle cyn­i­cal? Sure. It should be. It’s a multi-million dol­lar PR cam­paign for Israel and Jewish iden­tity. It deserves to be exam­ined with some healthy cyn­i­cism.

Moral of the story: Chillax. Allison Benedikt said noth­ing wrong.